As Victory Park proves less and less victorious in recent months, stories have circulated that Tom Colicchio was considering moving out of the W and plying his Craft elsewhere. To which the Top Chef head judge says: Not a chance. Indeed, Colicchio tells Unfair Park he's got two years left on his deal with Hillwood, and he has recently reworked the terms of his agreement with Ross Perot Jr., who owns the W, and Starwood Hotels, which operates it. Since its opening in June 2006, Craft had been leasing the space from Hillwood, whereas now, he says, "they pay us a fee off the gross."
"We've always been in control of the restaurant, even though it was a management deal, just like the other deals I have" in Las Vegas and Atlanta, he tells Unfair Park. "We control what's on the menu, we control the food we're purchasing, we control the staff. But the terms of the deal have changed. We're just not paying rent. And we're staying there."
He is, of course, frustrated with the lack of diners in the celebrated eatery. There's the perception, of course, that's it's far too expensive -- especially right now. But last month, Bloomberg News referred to the New York outpost as "a four-star American restaurant for the recession." You simply have to know how to eat there: Take a lot of folks, order a few things off the menu, and chow down family-style.
"You can eat very well if you choose carefully," he says. "We've had people from Day One figure out how to eat at Craft in New York. They come in, they get an appetizer and salad and split that, order a protein and split that, get two sides and maybe some mushrooms, and they're done. It's not terribly expensive... I don't know what the hell we have to do to drive business down there. I know the whole development is pretty much a bust. But why aren't people driving there and going to dinner?"
Part of the answer to that question is simple: Stop charging folks to valet park with a validated ticket from Craft. To which Colicchio responds: He has nothing to do with that. That's all Hillwood, which charges at least $5 ($10 at the W entrance) -- which is no big deal to a New Yorker like Colicchio, but outrageous to folks who've spent a couple hundred on a nice meal.
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"We can't control that at all," he says. "Living in New York, though, and someone wants $5 to park it? Take it. But not only that, early on, when you were paying for parking, it would also take you 45 minutes to get your car [at the W]."
Colicchio has in recent months also considered making dramatic changes at Craft -- doing away with breakfast and lunch, for instance, when the restaurant's often empty, and offering only room service. He also offered switching to a lower-priced menu, something he's trying out in New York and Los Angeles, where, on Fridays, he's offering 30 dishes with nothing costing more than $10. But Hillwood declined to go that route: "I showed them the menu," says Colicchio, "and they said, 'No, we want to stay with what we're doing.'"
"People are definitely tightening the belt elsewhere," he says. "But I like the [Dallas] market, and I am very happy with the food we're doing there, with the service. We get more compliments on that restaurant than any of our other restaurants. So we're not going anywhere. We'll stay open as long as they want to run a restaurant."